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Meet the lesbian who heckled Michelle Obama

Sturtz disrupts fundraiser, seeks ‘full federal equality’

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Ellen Sturtz, GetEqual, gay news, Washington Blade
Ellen Sturtz, GetEqual, gay news, Washington Blade

Ellen Sturtz heckled Michelle Obama at a DNC fundraiser. (Washington Blade file photo from a previous protest by Michael Key)

A lesbian activist had a testy exchange with first lady Michelle Obama at a fundraiser on Tuesday evening over a much sought-after LGBT non-discrimination executive order, leading to the ejection of the activist from the event.

Ellen Sturtz, a 56-year-old D.C.-based activist affiliated with the grassroots LGBT group GetEQUAL, had the exchange with the first lady — which involved not just the executive order, but the Employment Non-Discrimination Act — at a Democratic National Committee fundraising event in D.C.

“I think she was upset by the interruption, no doubt,” Sturtz said. “But I really didn’t feel like there was a lot of anger or felt like I was in danger at all. Even though she was pretty — I would like to say assertive — but obviously it was pretty aggressive.”

According to Sturtz, the exchange began when Michelle Obama began talking about children without delving too much into LGBT issues beforehand. Sturtz said she shouted out to the first lady something about the importance of LGBT children, and Michelle Obama wasn’t happy.

“She cut me off immediately and leaned over podium, sort of her put her big hand towards me and said something to the effect of ‘You don’t do that to me’ or ‘I don’t do that,'” Sturtz said. “Then I made a comment that I’m interested in making sure that we have employment protections, and I’m not going to be quiet any longer.”

Sturtz said things became even more testy as Michelle Obama left the podium to talk to the activist face to face.

“She came down from the podium and got into my face — probably within three inches of my face,” Sturtz said. “She basically took the microphone down, and she said to me, ‘I don’t do this, and if you want the microphone, it’s either I have the microphone or you have the microphone. I said, ‘I’ll take the microphone.’ And she said, ‘If you take the microphone, then I’m leaving.'”

At that point, the crowd called for the first lady to stay and expressed its disapproval of Sturtz as she was kicked out, but not before she concluded that she wants President Obama to sign the non-discimination executive order for federal contractors.

“When I left, I made some comments as they were kicking me out about a being an old abrasive lesbian just looking for full federal equality,” Sturtz said. “And I think I may have said something like, ‘Is there anything wrong with that?’ as I’m sort of escorted out.'”

Sturtz’s account is consistent with what The Huffington Post’s Amanda Terkel reported happened during the event in her pool report for the fundraiser:

“One of the things I don’t do well is this,” replied FLOTUS to loud applause. She left the lectern and moved over to the protester, saying they could “listen to me or you can take the mic, but I’m leaving. You all decide. You have one choice.”

Crowd started shouting that they wanted FLOTUS to stay.

“You need to go!” said one woman near the protester.

The protester was then escorted out, shouting “…lesbian looking for federal equality before I die.” (First part of the quote was inaudible.) Pool could not get their name before they were taken out.

The crowd was generally favorable to the first lady. According to a transcript of the first lady’s remarks, Michelle Obama was greeted by someone shouting, ‘We love you!’ at the start of the event and concluded her remarks with applause.

Sturtz, who’s also affiliated with the anti-war group Code Pink, said she’s seeking “full federal equality” and moved to D.C. in December to help make the case after having lived in California since 1986.

“I know it’s probably unrealistic and whatever people think — whether you can get ENDA passed this year or next year, or we have until 2015 — I don’t want to wait anymore,” Sturtz said. “I have the been the nice lesbian; I’m not nice anymore. I’m nice, but I don’t want to be quiet any longer. I don’t want to listen to the non-profit organizations telling me what the timeframe is — how many decades I’m going to have to wait for full federal equality.”

Sturtz paid the ticket price of $500 to attend the event held in Northwest D.C. at the home of lesbian couple Karen Dixon and Nan Schaffer — with the intent of talking with someone at the DNC about the executive order. Sturtz said she donated to the Democratic Party in the previous election cycle.

“They cashed my check … they were asking for more money today,” Sturtz said. “We’re just asking them to do something that’s really simple, and I don’t think we’re really getting many answers about why they’re not willing to do it.”

The DNC and the White House didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on the exchange. The Office of the First Lady didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment late Tuesday evening.

Just hours before the fundraiser, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney was questioned about the executive order, but reiterated the line that the administrative prefers a legislative path to addressing LGBT workplace discrimination.

“The president believes that the right approach to this problem is an inclusive piece of legislation, and that’s the approach that we’re taking,” Carney said. “It was the approach that we took with repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ and we continue to support this effort.”

Prior to her ejection, Sturtz said she had a conversation with Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz about ENDA and the executive order. According to Sturtz, the Florida congresswoman expressed interest in the directive and was surprised by estimates it would cover 22 percent of the workforce.

“Obviously, she was very supportive, and obviously, like everyone, there’s a lot of frustration about what’s happening in the House,” Sturtz said. “But she understood the strategy of getting the executive order to help fuel the effort of getting it passed in the House.”

Two other GetEQUAL members, college students, were also present at the event along with activist Autumn Leaf, of Columbus, Ohio, who told the Blade she interrupted Wasserman Schultz’s remarks delivered at the same fundraiser.

“I felt very frustrated with the rosy picture of what was done for the LGBT community, especially when the executive order is something that literally requires the effort signing a piece of paper,” Leaf said. “I called her out, ‘What about the executive order that President Obama promised back in 2008 as a candidate, and she looked over and just glared.”

Leaf said Wasserman Schultz told the audience ENDA would be passed, but only with Democratic control of the U.S. House and urged those in attendance to max out their donations.

According to Leaf — who said she wasn’t ejected from the event, but was watched closely by a Secret Service agent — no arrests were made at the fundraiser as a result of the interruptions.

Sturtz emphasized that her action wasn’t about herself, but ENDA, the executive order and equality.

Heather Cronk, co-director of GetEQUAL, said more protests similar to what happened at the fundraiser will continue if the executive order is withheld.

“We’ll keep speaking up and speaking out until we’re equal — and we hope the president and the first lady have a long conversation tonight,” Cronk said.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of article incorrectly identified the day on which the event took place and activist Autumn Leaf as someone else. The Blade regrets the error.

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LGBTQ groups stop short of criticizing Sinema for obstructing filibuster reform

Bisexual senator rebuffs Biden on voting rights proposal

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Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) has declared she won't support filibuster reform to pass voting legislation. (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Despite an out bisexual being among two Democrats responsible for thwarting President Biden’s call to advance voting rights, LGBTQ groups that supported Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) stopped short of criticizing her directly for impeding legislation at the top of progressives’ wish lists.

Although the change being sought was limited to voting rights legislation, the refusal from Sinema to change the filibuster rule, which requires 60 votes to move legislation to the Senate floor as opposed to a simple majority, effectively put a stake in the heart of the legislative agenda for Democrats, including any possibility of enacting LGBTQ civil rights legislation like the Equality Act.

The Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s leading LGBTQ group, declined to identify Sinema by name in an organizational statement provided by a spokesperson via email in response to a Washington Blade inquiry on her refusal to change the filibuster to pass voting rights legislation.

“The core of our democracy is the right to vote,” the statement says. “The United States Senate must act on legislation to protect that right now, including passage of federal voting rights and voting protection legislation. Without its essential safeguards guaranteeing that the voices of all voters — including LGBTQ+ Black, Brown and other minority voters — will be heard at the ballot box, we cannot ensure that any other right, even those currently enshrined in law, will be protected in the years to come.”

The closest the statement comes to criticizing Sinema, without actually doing so, is the final line: “As a result, we feel that it is necessary for the Senate to take whatever actions are required, including changes to Senate rules, to ensure a majority to pass this essential legislation.”

The Human Rights Campaign endorsed Sinema in the past as a candidate for U.S. Senate and hosted her as a special guest for fundraising and promotional events. It should be noted, JoDee Winterhof, HRC’s senior vice president of policy and political affairs, once worked for Sinema as chief of staff.

Asked whether HRC’s position was informed by Winterhof’s past work, the spokesperson replied: “Many of our staff have experience working on the Hill. Regardless of who they have worked for, we continue to believe that it is necessary for the Senate to take whatever actions are required, including changes to the Senate rules, to pass federal voting reform.”

Moments before Sinema was set last Thursday to meet with Biden on the filibuster, she took to the Senate floor preemptively and declared she wouldn’t budge.

“There’s no need for me to restate my long-standing support for the 60-vote threshold to pass legislation,” Sinema said.

Added Sinema: “When one party need only negotiate with itself, policy will inextricably be pushed from the middle towards the extremes,” adding that she doesn’t support that outcome and “Arizonans do not either.”

Joining Sinema in refusing to budge on the filibuster is her fellow moderate Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who has proposed alternatives to the current state of Senate rules, but ultimately rejected the changes proposed by the caucus.

In contrast to the relatively muted response from LGBTQ groups, other civil rights organizations were quick to denounce Sinema and Manchin for supporting the filibuster, calling the Senate rules as they stand Jim Crow 2.0. Late Monday, Emily’s List announced it would no longer support Sinema for re-election over her position on voting rights.

Martin Luther King III, the son of the late civil rights leader, compared Manchin and Sinema to white moderates who half-heartedly supported his father’s work.

“History will not remember them kindly,” the younger King said, referring to Sinema and Manchin by name, according to PBS News Hour.

One exception to LGBTQ groups declining to criticize Sinema was the National LGBTQ Task Force, which said the senator should be coming up with alternatives to filibuster reform.

Kierra Johnson, executive director of the Task Force, said she’s been “asking questions because Sen. Sinema is known for being a supporter of so many pieces of progressive legislation and culture change related to queer people and women’s civil and human rights.”

“I want to see better and more, right?” Johnson said. “Yes, we should be working to build bridges across the aisle, across political ideology, but for me, the question is if you’re not going to support filibuster reform, then what are you supporting, and what is the pathway forward?”

Johnson added Sinema “owes it to the people who have supported her over the years to come up with these alternatives if she won’t support filibuster reform.”

Asked whether the Task Force has done any outreach to Sinema, Johnson said the organization is “in the process of trying to meet with her folks” and looking at ways to bring to her voices from LGBTQ movement community leaders.

Biden’s call to reform the filibuster — even though it was limited to voting rights legislation — may have been dead on arrival as Sinema and Manchin have consistently resisted efforts in the Senate to reform the filibuster. The efforts to change Senate rules, however, appeared to have new strength after Biden’s speech in Georgia last week making a plea for reform based on the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol and the restrictive voting law passed in that state.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki, asked Friday about Sinema and Manchin refusing to budge on the filibuster, said the administration would continue to push for voting rights legislation.

“I would say that the president’s view, as you heard him say yesterday, is that we’re going to continue to press to get this done moving forward,” Psaki said. “And that means continuing to engage with a range of officials who are supportive, some who have questions and some who are skeptical.”

Psaki pointed out Biden ended up having the meeting with Sinema despite her remarks on the floor, adding “that’s evidence of his continued commitment to keep engaging.”

The LGBTQ community, as with any issue, isn’t uniform in thinking Sinema should be obligated to have a certain view against the filibuster simply because she’s bisexual, or that LGBTQ groups should criticize her for being obstructionist.

One LGBTQ strategist, who agreed to talk on condition of anonymity, outright rejects calls for Sinema to support a change in rules because the filibuster “ensures that minority perspectives cannot be trampled by majoritarianism.”

“Portraying an LGBTQ woman as a gender and sexuality traitor shows a deep disrespect for our history,” the strategist added. “Sinema’s success in fighting for working families, vulnerable populations and LGBTQ rights is grounded in the belief that building large coalitions is how to best effect legal and social changes. Naturally, it follows she would be against a change in decades of Senate precedent that would prioritize hyper partisanship over persuasion.”

Biden’s speech in Georgia may have been more of an attempt to excite the progressive base as opposed to making a strategic push for filibuster reform. After all, his popularity is at an all-time low, which limits his influence. A POLITICO/Morning Consult poll asking voters to grade Biden after his first year in office found 37 percent gave him an “F,” compared to the 31 who gave either “A” and “B,” which is a touch worse than Trump at this point in his presidency.

The LGBTQ Victory Fund, which has endorsed Sinema in the past, declined to make any declarations about withholding an endorsement when asked by the Washington Blade.

“Our Victory Fund Campaign Board – made up of more than 150 political leaders and advocates from across the country – votes to determine our endorsements,” said Elliot Imse, a Victory Fund spokesperson. “If Sen. Sinema runs for reelection, a review of her record as it relates to equality will of course be a primary consideration for whether she receives our endorsement. That board vote would take place, if she applies for endorsement, in late 2023 or 2024.”

Imse added as a U.S. senator Sinema is not currently up for election because after being elected in 2018 she is set to hold her seat for another four years.
 
“Sen. Sinema is not currently endorsed by Victory Fund and is not on an active ballot,” Imse said. “We last endorsed her in 2018 when she was running against Martha McSally – a right-wing extremist candidate vociferously opposed to equality for LGBTQ people.”

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Grenell emails reveal internal talk on Trump era policy against Pride flag

U.S. embassies barred from rainbow flag on official poles

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Ric Grenell, Richard Grenell, gay news, Washington Blade
Richard Grenell's emails reveals internal talk about the Pride flag policy at U.S. embassies. (Blade file photo)

The latest emails from the State Department obtained by the Washington Blade via its lawsuit under the Freedom of Information Act reveal internal deliberation in the Trump administration over news reports about the prohibition of displaying Pride flags on the official pole at U.S. embassies.

Former U.S. Ambassador Richard Grenell, whose emails the Blade is seeking as the public face of a global initiative that pledged to decriminalize homosexuality, is repeatedly shown in the communications instructing his aides at the embassy in Berlin to give no comment to the media, including in response to an inquiry at the time from the Blade, on the flag policy for embassies.

“Thanks. Say nothing. I’m working it internally,” Grenell responds in an email chain after being updated on the latest media inquiries, which included requests from ABC’s Conor Finnegan, the Huffington Post, Buzzfeed, and CBS.

It’s unclear what, if anything, Grenell was doing as part of “working it internally” as news broke that embassies were barred from flying Pride flags on the official pole, or even whether he was seeking a substantive change as opposed to crafting talking points to mitigate the appearance of the Trump administration being anti-LGBTQ.

“No Fox or local German press but I suspect that the latter will be coming today once they wake up and read other coverage,” writes Joseph Giordono-Scholz, who was handling media relations for the embassy. “Will continue as discussed, no responses.”

In 2019, shortly after Grenell announced he’d spearhead a global initiative to decriminalize homosexuality on behalf of the Trump administration, U.S. embassies that had sought to raise the rainbow flag in recognition of June as Pride month were barred from doing so under guidance from the State Department. 

Critics at the time jumped on the policy as further evidence the Trump administration was anti-LGBTQ, despite having recently launched the decriminalization initiative. Trump defenders pointed out the prohibition was limited to the official pole, was a general ban of flying any flag other than the U.S. flag, and embassies found other ways to display the Pride flag on their grounds.

Grenell didn’t respond Tuesday to the Blade’s request for comment on the meaning of “working it internally,” but Log Cabin Republicans, an organization close to Grenell, volunteered a message shortly after the Blade sent its inquiry to him.

Charles Moran, managing director of Log Cabin Republicans, said in the email the conception the Trump administration banned Pride flags at embassies is erroneous.

“We were very pleased that President Trump made it clear that pride flags could continue to be flown at embassies around the globe, despite logistical discussions internally being had at the State Department,” Moran said.

Attached in the email is an image of Moran standing below a pole with both a U.S. flag and a rainbow flag, which Moran said was taken at the U.S. Embassy Berlin on July 26, 2019, when he was en route to a decriminalization discussion forum being hosted there. 

Asked by the Blade whether that was the official pole, Moran replied, “I don’t know what an ‘official pole’ is. It was a professionally installed flag pole, on the embassy next to the front door.” Moran didn’t respond to an additional follow up question on what he meant by Trump making it clear Pride flags would be allowed at embassies.

Morgan Ortagus, then-spokesperson for the State Department, defended former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s policy against Pride flags on as she acknowledged “Pride Month that we’re in right now celebrated around the world by many State Department employees, by many embassies.”

“The secretary has the position that, as it related to the flag pole, that only the American flag should be flown there,” Ortagus said.

The email chain within the U.S. embassy in Berlin on the news development began with Giordono-Scholz forwarding Grenell a link to a story from NBC News’s Josh Lederman, who broke the story on U.S. embassies being unable to fly Pride flags, followed by a subsequent email with the text of his article. The immediacy with which the aide sends the link in an email first before the story itself in a subsequent message suggests a sense of urgency in distribution and awareness the article would be forthcoming.

Other news outlets were quick to follow up, including the Blade, as evidenced by Giordono-Scholz’s follow up question to Grenell after sharing the initial NBC News story.

“CNN (Michelle Kosinski) just called, asked if we had anything to add,” Giordono-Scholz writes. “Wash Blade also just emailed. How would like me to respond to these and coming inquiries — just point them to the NBC statement you gave and refer back to DC on questions about the Dept?”

Grenell was succinct in response: “Say nothing. Right now don’t respond.”

Giordono-Scholz acknowledges the instructions from Grenell in a subsequent email, which also notifies him of an inquiry from the Washington Post’s Carol Morello.

“Will continue to let you know about inquires but not respond to any,” Giordono-Scholz writes.

The emails were obtained in a FOIA production from the State Department this week as a result of a lawsuit filed by the Blade with attorneys at the law firm Davis Wright Tremaine LLP. The litigation was filed in August 2021 after interminable delays in production of communications, which the Blade initially sought by a FOIA request in September 2020.

The State Department has identified tens of thousands of emails potentially responsive to the Blade’s request and is expected to release those it deems to be responsive periodically as a result of an agreement in the litigation.

Also ensnared in the latest email dump are communications on other foreign policy topics, including the Nord Strom 2 pipeline and Iran’s seizure of oil tankers. Many of these emails reveal a preoccupation with using tweets as a tool to convey foreign policy messages with little else mentioned in terms of engagement.

“I’m watching. Already tweeted about it ;)” Grenell responds when an aide informs him that Iran has seized oil tankers.

Evyenia Sidereas, political minister-counselor at the U.S. embassy in Berlin, responds: “My twitter alerts can’t keep up :),” which prompts Grenell to reply: “I’ve been a little busy today. Lol.”

The emphasis on Twitter is also seen after an aide in May 2019 brings to Grenell’s attention the Kenya high court has affirmed the country’s law against homosexuality. An aide (whose name the State Department redacted in the email) informs him then-U.S. Ambassador Kyle McCarter is set to have a meeting with staff “to discuss whether he’ll issue a statement” and the embassy in Nairobi had updated the State Department while awaiting further guidance.

“I’ll tweet about this one, too,” Grenell says. “Can you make a suggestion and I’ll tweet Hungary today. Kenya tomorrow.” (It’s unclear what the reference to Hungary was regarding.)

In terms of discussion at the U.S. embassy on the Kenya decision, whatever was considered apparently didn’t bear fruit. The Blade couldn’t immediately find any public statement on the Kenya decision from McCarter in his capacity as a U.S. ambassador during the Trump administration. McCarter didn’t respond to the Blade’s request to comment for this article.

In 2018, McCarter was grilled during his Senate confirmation hearing on his record as an Illinois state legislator who opposed LGBTQ rights, including his vote against an anti-bullying measure after stating he believed it would promote homosexuality. McCarter also had a history of misogynistic tweets and in 2016 tweeted: “Hillary for Prison. No, really.”

Much of the focus on the Trump administration’s global initiative appeared to be Iran, which has been an antagonist on the global stage and more so after Trump withdrew from the Iran deal. Iran is also one of the countries where homosexuality is not only criminalized, but punishable by death.

Although Grenell has publicly disputed Iran was the focus, he was quick to provide a quote to his assistant seeking a response from him after the country’s foreign minister affirmed its anti-gay policy in response to questions from a reporter with a German newspaper.

“The UN’s Declaration of Human Rights makes clear that these answers from the Iranian regime are violating basic UN principles,” Grenell writes. “UN members should agree with the Declaration in order to be members. Criminalizing homosexuality violates the Declaration, plain and simple.”

Grenell’s response was later found online in an article in The Jerusalem Post, which covered reaction to the news in an article titled, “Iran’s FM affirms right to execute gays and blasts U.S. and Israel.”

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Biden puts his weight on changing Senate rules to pass voting rights

President says changes need to ‘protect our democracy’

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President Biden said he supports changing Senate rules to advance voting rights legislation. (Screen capture via C-SPAN)

President Biden, after paying tribute to civil rights pioneer Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. by leaving a wreath on his grave, brought the strength of his presidency to bear in a speech Tuesday in an effort to reform U.S. Senate rules to enact voting rights legislation.

“I’m making it clear, to protect our democracy, I support changing Senate rules whichever way they need to changed to prevent a minority of senators from blocking basic voting rights,” Biden said.

Biden has indicated before he supports changes to longstanding rules the Senate requiring 60 votes to end a filibuster and proceed with debate on legislation, but the speech marks an elevation of viewpoint in a more formal way and increases the pressure on fellow Democrats like Joe Manchin (W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.), who oppose such a change.

Based on his words, Biden’s position on filibuster reform appears limited to voting rights legislation, which like so much other legislation has passed in the House and has stalled out in the Senate. The Washington Blade has placed a request in with the White House seeking comment on why, if Biden supports changing the filibuster for voting rights, why hasn’t he made the case for other issues, such as police reform or LGBTQ civil rights.

A major reason cited by Biden to bring the force of his presidency down on this issue: The attack on U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021 instigated by President Trump, who falsely claimed he won the 2020 election against Biden.

Biden conjured images of the long road in the civil rights journey in the United States and a “violet riot” at the Capitol that Biden said undermined the process.

The recently enacted voter law in Georgia, which makes mail-in voting illegal, limits hours and locations for ballot drop boxes and bars the delivery of food and water to persons waiting in line to vote, was another major focus for Biden, who pointed out Republican lawmakers in Georgia put it in place after he won the state in 2020 and Trump pressured officials there to find more votes for him.

As a result, Biden said the “threat to democracy is so grave” he supports changes to the filibuster, which came about in use in the Senate from senators seeking to block civili rights legislation.

“If that bare minimum is blocked, we have no choice but change the Senate rules, including getting rid of the filibuster for this,” Biden said.

Biden identified two bills in his speech: the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, which seeks to rectify a U.S. Supreme Court decision undermining the Voting Rights Act and the Freedom of the Vote Act, which would dramatically reform voting process, including the expansion of voting by mail and early voting.

Joining Biden in Atlanta in favor of changing rules to advance voting rights was Vice President Kamala Harris, who said “nowhere — nowhere — does the Constitution give a minority the right to unilaterally block legislation.”

“Over the past few years, we have seen so many anti-voter laws, that there is a danger of becoming accustomed to these laws, a danger of adjusting to these laws as though they are normal, a danger of becoming complacent, complicit,” Harris said. “Anti-voter laws are not new in our nation, but we must not be deceived into thinking they are normal.”

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